Which university is the world’s first depends on which definition you use for the concept.
The classic view holds that universities are at their heart a European institution, growing out of medieval Catholic education: certain cathedrals and monasteries ran their own schools, specifically for the purpose of educating clergy. From this root grows the University of Bologna in 1088 — that being the first institution to use the word, terming itself universitas magistrorum et scholarium, i.e. “a community of teachers and scholars.” Others followed suit, often founded by monarchs, but sometimes by powerful cities and the like, though in the early days they were few in number.
Another view broadens the concept somewhat. Under this model, the oldest university is probably the Qarawiyyin in Morocco, founded in 859; legend attributes it to Fatima bint Muhammad Al-Fihriyya, the well-educated daughter of a wealthy merchant, though historians have questioned the accuracy of that tale. Whoever was responsible for it, the place was built as a mosque — which leads to fuzziness around the question of its role, because nobody’s quite sure when teaching began there. Right from the start? A century or two later? It wasn’t formally organized as what the West would consider to be a university until the mid-twentieth century, though education had certainly been going on since long before then.
But a university is specifically a place for higher education, so we have to ask what that phrase even means. The answer to that is . . . honestly, quite muddy. Formal definitions for it pretty much all operate in the context of the modern school system, e.g. referring to it as post-secondary or tertiary education, which is essentially a relative definition rather than an absolute one. It’s the final stage of education — okay, but in a society where most people get no education at all, wouldn’t even basic schooling be “final”?
In some ways it’s more helpful to think about the structure of a university instead. This, however, brings us back around to a Eurocentric form of the concept, because places like the University of Bologna are distinctively akin to guilds. We haven’t discussed those yet, but back in the eleventh century, universitas referred more generally to a community or corporate body of people. If you think of students as apprentices, professors as masters, and the granting of a diploma as the equivalent of guild certification, you can see the parallels. A university was essentially a guild of scholars, a corporate unit with its own internal rules and government. Lower levels of education didn’t have the same organized identity.
There’s nothing wrong with granting that the word “university” might be culturally specific. (Some things are, after all.) But it does leave us without a good word for institutions of higher learning, whatever form those might take in a given society. Take the Chinese civil examination system: much education for that was done on a tutor-to-pupil model, though there were a number of privately-run academies. But those who did well on the exam for what’s commonly referred to as the first degree were eligible to enter the Taixue, later called the Guozijian, aka the Imperial Academy. Those who did well on the highest tiers of the examination system entered another institution, the Hanlin Academy, though that place very much combined the functions of bureaucracy with those of scholarship. Even if these didn’t have the medieval Christian underpinnings of a European university, nor the self-governing guild-type structure, they’re unquestionably something in the same general vein.
I think the key to considering something “higher education” is the notion of specialization. Lower levels aim to teach a broad set of basics: reading, writing, simple math, and accomplishments that are considered prerequisites for calling oneself cultured, like a general knowledge of history and literature. When you climb further up the ladder, though, you start chasing a particular strand, whether that be theology (in the Christian or Islamic model of a religiously-organized school), literature and philosophy (as in the Chinese system), medicine (a very common area of specialization in many parts of the world), the modern emphasis on science, or any other field of specialization. The graduate of the Chinese metropolitan exam was not expected to be a skilled engineer; a modern bachelor of science isn’t expected to be deeply conversant with literature.
Though we do expect them — ideally — to be at least a little bit conversant with it. Many colleges today have some form of core curriculum or distribution requirement that pushes students to take classes in something other than their main field. I suspect that’s because the overall volume of what we want the average person to know has grown, and grown, and grown. In the days of Newton and Liebniz, calculus was a new, arcane form of math, known only to a few. I studied calculus when I was seventeen, and it was only the thin end of the mathematical wedge. History was a lot quicker to teach when it could get away with only giving the white male side of things; accounting for alternative perspectives takes more time. And thirty years ago, schools were just beginning to set up “computer labs” to teach us how to use these newfangled machines (upon which I mostly remember playing Oregon Trail).
So — much like the Chinese students of yore, mastering an archaic form of their language and memorizing classics — we not only have to start early, but we keep going for a long time. Our more comprehensive education continues into college, and true specialization mostly happens in graduate school (for those who attend). Meanwhile, jobs for which a high school diploma used to be considered sufficient often now require a college degree. All of which affects, not only education, but other topics like economic status and even what it means to be an adult: again like Chinese scholars, who might continue beating their heads against the upper level examinations for decades on end before receiving official appointments, we may not begin our careers per se until quite late. Who knows what it will look like in the future? If “higher education” is defined as the final stage of the process, the finish line may be ever-receding.